The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.
§ 1. Captain John Smith
The earliest Virginians were full of enthusiasm and wished to tell the coming generations how the colony of Virginia was founded. Their enterprise was popular in England, and he who wrote about it was sure of readers. The men who planted tobacco were prosaic. They were poor men become rich, or well-born men become materialistic, and it was only after many years that any of the forms of culture appeared among them. One of these forms was literature, but it was ever a plant of spindling growth.
The first historian in Virginia, the first in the British colonies, was Captain John Smith. He was twenty-seven years old and a soldier of fortune when he landed at Jamestown in 1607. He was a member of the council, and the council was lawmaker, executive, and judge under the authority of the Company which sent the colony out. According to the enthusiasts who preached colonization three tasks awaited the men of James-town: to discover mines as the Spaniards had discovered them in Mexico, to convert the Indians to Christianity, and to plant another England in the New World. The third only was accomplished, and it was accomplished chiefly through the efforts and good sense of Smith.
Of the one hundred and five colonists thirty-five were gentleman adventurers, leaders of the enterprise but useless in the forest. They waited in idleness while labourers built houses and constructed a fort. Then illness came, agues and fluxes, and it seemed that Jamestown would share the fate of Roanoke Island. Smith saved it by turning trader. Going to the Indians with trinkets he secured enough corn to last through the critical years of 1607 to 1609. Some of the high-born adventurers approved of Smith’s leadership, but others found him intolerable. He was the son of a Lincolnshire copyholder; and how should he give orders to his betters? Moreover, he was boastful. From mere boyhood he had been seeking his fortune with sword in hand, in France, Italy, and southeastern Europe. He told many stories of what he had done, romantically coloured and tending to proclaim his glory. Posterity does not accept them as true, and we may not be surprised if his companions in the colony found them unbelievable. Thus he had his enemies as well as his friends. In the shifting of parties his own friends became triumphant and Smith was recognized as president for more than a year.
Late in 1609 he returned to England. He had lost the confidence of the Company, and nothing he could do sufficed to regain it. In 1614 he induced some London merchants to send him to the northern coasts with a fishing expedition. While the sailors sought the cod at Monhegan, he sailed along the coast, making an excellent map, and giving names to bays headlands, and rivers. At his request the Prince of Wales gave the name New England to this region, and to New England Smith transferred his affections, seeking support for a colony he wished to plant there. A large expedition was promised, and he received the title “Admirall of New England”; but nothing came of his hopes save the title, which he invariably attached to his name thereafter.
It was evidently by accident that Smith became a historian. In the spring of 1608 Wingfield, one of his opponents at James-town, a cousin by marriage to the Earl of Southampton, departed for England, his mind full of his wrongs. Two months later another ship departed, carrying a long letter from Smith to his friends filled with a hopeful account of the colony. This letter was handed about among the members of the Company and late in the year came into the hands of one who had it published with the title, A True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Noate as Hath Hapned in Virginia since the First Planting of that Collony. A preface explained: “Somewhat more was by him written, which being as I thought (fit to be private) I would not adventure to make it publicke.” The True Relation is the first printed American book, and of all Smith’s writings it is the one which posterity most esteems. It is not boastful, or controversial, although it is very personal. The style is direct, vivid, and generally simple. It was well received, and seems to have awakened literary ambitions in its author.
Smith’s second effort was made in 1612, when he published A Map of Virginia. With a Description of the Countrey. It contained a good map of the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, and an account of the natural history of Virginia, together with supplementary chapters on events in the colony from June, 1608, to the end of 1609. These accounts were written by some of his friends and are in his praise. Smith calls them “examinations” and had them taken down while their authors were in London. They were evidently prepared to revive his waning fortunes. In 1616, after his return from New England, he published A Description of New England, and in 1620 New Englands Trials, a tract on the fisheries. The Trials was brought down to date in 1622, and an account of the colony at Plymouth was included in it.
Smith was now a confirmed hack writer. Possibly he had Purchas and Hakluyt in mind when in 1624 he gave to the world a book containing all that he knew about Virginia. It was a narrative drawn from several sources. First, he used his own works, and when they were exhausted he reproduced, or culled from, any relation he had at hand. The whole bore the title The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles. Relatively an unimportant part of it is written by Smith, but he does not pretend to have written the parts he did not write. Three other books completed his literary career. One was called An Accidence or the Path-way to Experience, a tract which appeared in 1626 and was reissued several times, not always with the same title. It contained a description of the most observable features of a ship of war, and was designed for young seamen. In 1630 was published The True Travels, Adventures, and Observations of Captaine Iohn Smith; and in 1631 came another tract, Advertisements for the Unexperienced Planters of New-England. In the year it was published, 21 June, he died in London and was buried in St. Saviour’s Church.